Heads Up! This post discusses stuff like breasts, breastfeeding, breast pumping and how it all relates to me. If that makes you feel weirded out for some reason, you can skip this post.
There’s a reason I’m sharing the nitty gritty about my breastfeeding struggles. Primarily, because I wish other women would have told me beforehand that it’s not always easy. After I shared my struggles with some of my friends it shocked me to learn how many of them also had issues with their breastfeeding journey. I hope that by sharing my experience it may help others feel that they aren’t alone, that it’s more common than you realize to struggle with issues, and that you’re doing a great job no matter the issues you are experiencing!
Throughout my entire pregnancy I never once questioned whether or not I would breastfeed my baby. I just knew I would. I had read enough about the benefits of breastfeeding. I was totally on board with breastfeeding without needing any convincing about it.
When I was about 6 months pregnant, there was a huge sale on at Babies R Us so I bought myself a little manual hand pump. I chose a manual pump because I figured I would only pump a couple times here or there, just so I could let Levi feed the baby once in a while. But otherwise that baby would be slapped on the boob 24/7, no big deal. Let me just say, I am thankful that I had left it unopened and kept the receipt. You’ll see why in a bit.
Birth & Hospital Stay
The moment the doctor placed Jonas on my chest, he started to do the crawl towards my breast. Within the first 10 minutes of his little life he latched on without any difficulty. We were off to a good start!
After being moved from the labour and delivery room up to my room in the postpartum ward, it was something like 4 am. Jonas was in his bassinet beside me. (It’s so nice that babies room in with mom at our hospital.) I was exhausted. I was a little bit out of sorts still. The nurse got me settled in and I asked her what to do if I need to feed Jonas. Her response was “He probably won’t eat much for the next 24 hours anyway.” Not what I asked, but okay. I asked her what to do if he did need to eat. I said I was a first time mom and really not sure what to do about this breastfeeding thing. I was hoping she’d say something like ‘Just push the buzzer and I’ll come help show you the ropes’, or something like that. But no. She told me to read the pamphlet (more like a brochure) provided to me about breastfeeding.
It was 4 am. I wasn’t about to read a pamphlet. I was going to bed and besides, she’s a nurse. She knows best, right? So, zzzzzz.
In this nurse’s defense, it’s partly true, what she said. I suppose.
“Babies don’t need much milk in the first few days, but they need some.” – Dr. Jack Newman
When I woke up a couple hours later, the day nurse was on shift. She was brisk and very busy. I asked for help figuring out how to get Jonas latched on. She said I didn’t have milk yet and needed to manually express colostrum to help get things moving along. I had no idea how to manually express anything. She asked if I had read the pamphlet for information on manual expression. I hadn’t. I guess I should have really read that pamphlet. The nurse put on a glove, grabbed my nipple and yanked. Tears sprang into my eyes. It was probably one of the most painful things I have ever felt – and I just experienced 11 hours of unending contractions with no breaks!
But, she’s a nurse. She knows best, I guess. This is how you manually express colostrum, I guess. It should feel like how she showed me, I guess. So I kept trying to manually express – with her technique. It obviously wasn’t working. I was still trying to wrangle a newborn baby to get him to latch. Later that afternoon the nurse suggested seeing the lactation consultant. I welcomed this happily.
The lactation consultant stopped by and observed my technique. She said I was doing a great job and I felt super empowered. I got this! We are doing awesome! We aren’t having any issues at all! Or so I thought. From day one, Jonas had an excellent latch. I feel very thankful for this, even now. He seemed to have good suck-swallow rhythm. The problem was, I didn’t realize how little Jonas was actually getting to eat. He was still producing a lot of wet/dirty diapers and seemed to be hydrated just fine. (Turns out the IV fluids I received to stay hydrated during labour kept him pretty hydrated too.)
While we stayed in the hospital I continued to feed Jonas every time he made a squawk. He latched on, and promptly fell asleep. We tried every trick to get him to wake up and feed actively. Tickled him, unswaddled him, skin-to-skin contact. He just liked to nap on the nipple.
The nurse we had the second night was awesome. She gave me some hands-on help getting him latched and feeding. She said to call her for every feed if I needed to, so that she could help me. It was great. I honestly thought I finally got the breastfeeding thing figured out at that point. I asked to see the lactation consultant one more time before being discharged from the hospital the following afternoon. I wanted to make sure I was on the right track still. She seemed to think everything was going well too. I went home feeling confident and empowered.
The First Night at Home
The nurse and lactation consultant both had warned me that Jonas might cluster feed the first few nights at home. After all, it was his sucking and feeding that would help really bring in my milk supply. I was braced and ready for it. And oh boy, did he ever cluster feed that first night. Or at least that’s what I thought it was. He was up every 30 mins, in a frenzy, wanting to eat. It was easily the hardest night we have had so far, and he’s six months old at the time of this writing. I was exhausted. Levi was exhausted. We were both unsure of what to do. Why did they let us leave the hospital? What were they thinking letting us be responsible for this living creature that wasn’t a dog or cat?! Why was I so eager to come home?
The First Week
Luckily here in Saskatoon they have a program called ‘Healthy & Home’. Registered nurses come to visit new mothers in your home the day after you are discharged from the hospital. They check all the important things like weight, bilirubin levels, etc. I knew they were coming. I wanted them here like, NOW! I even called them to make sure they were coming because it was New Years Day and I was worried they would be taking the day off and not have told me. I felt like they would just reassure me that yes, this is all normal. Jonas was just cluster feeding. Things are great. That I’d get the hang of it and eventually he wouldn’t wake up every 30 minutes hungry.
I didn’t think there was a problem. That’s what makes me so thankful for the Healthy & Home program. If the nurse didn’t come to do the home visit, how long would it have taken for me to realize things weren’t right? I can honestly say I don’t know that I had the ‘motherly instinct’ during those first few days. Everything was so foreign and I wasn’t sure of anything I was doing.
But there was a problem. Jonas had lost a lot of weight. More than they like to see. Generally a 10% weight loss after birth is considered allowable. Anything more than that and they start to get a bit concerned. Jonas had already lost 12% of his birth weight. To make matters worse, his bilirubin levels were high and he was jaundiced. That was a bombshell. I had no idea he wasn’t thriving as well as I’d thought. Babies sleep a lot don’t they? They don’t eat a ton anyway. The nurse said so! Turns out, Jonas wasn’t getting hardly anything though. It’s so hard to know just how much a baby eats, especially for a first timer. I assumed my body was making the essential colostrum and milk that he needed. It wasn’t. Not yet. Jonas was now 3 days old.
The nurse was concerned enough to recommend that we immediately begin supplementing Jonas with formula. She also wanted me to start pumping. I showed her my manual breast pump, still in the unopened package, and she said it wouldn’t cut it. We rented a hospital-grade pump from the pharmacy and I started pumping. Nothing came out. Like barely a drop.
I want to pause the story here and talk about how I was feeling throughout all of this. At this point I was thinking I was normal and things were fine. To be told otherwise was a big shock to my system. Perhaps it was the postpartum hormones and those fragile emotions but I bawled. I felt broken. I remember, through the snotty tears, saying, “I had just one job. All I had to do was feed him and I failed at that.” A bit dramatic, perhaps.
So we started feeding Jonas formula. I was supplementing using a makeshift Supplemental Nursing System. It was a two-person job, for sure. Jonas would be at the breast and a small flexible tube was gently placed in the side of his mouth so that when he sucked it would draw in the formula or expressed colostrum. The thing is, it was really tricky to wrangle the newborn baby, stick the tube in, and occasionally have to press down the syringe to get Jonas interested. We kept track of his feeds, poops and pees on a chart. A chart which I kept, because I knew that one day I’d look back on these days with wonder at how we got through it.
Throughout this first week we had home visits from the nurses almost every single day. Once Jonas started eating more his jaundice started to improve and we were able to avoid returning to the hospital for a stay under the bili-blanket. Once the home visits were done we visited the nurse and lactation consultant at the breastfeeding clinic to check up on his weight gain and make sure that we were still doing what we could to bring in my milk.
I was eating oatmeal like it was going out of style. I was drinking the mother’s milk tea. I was swallowing fenugreek seeds. So much fenugreek that I smelled like a Middle Eastern bazaar. I even tried drinking Guinness because it had worked for my sister in law. So far nothing worked enough to actually kickstart my milk production. (All of those things worked great once my milk finally came in … more about galactagogues in a future post, I promise!)
By this point I had abandoned the SNS for a bottle because Levi had to go back to work and I still couldn’t manage the tube and syringe without his help. I had a minor meltdown at the store when it came time to buy the bottles. Once again I felt as if I had failed and this was never going to work. I was so hard on myself because I hadn’t considered I’d ever have issues with breastfeeding. I’m certainly not judging any mothers who choose to bottle feed over breastfeed. It just wasn’t what I saw for myself and my baby and that’s why I struggled with feelings of failure.
At Jonas’s 10-day check-up he had already regained the weight he lost and was just over his original birth weight, thanks to being on formula, but my milk had still not come in. It was at this appointment my prenatal doctor prescribed me a moderate dosage of domperidone to help with my supply. In retrospect, I regret not visiting the doctor sooner about this. I relied on the nurses and lactation consultants – who were great overall – but weren’t not keen on the use of domperidone and didn’t encourage that as an option.
But it worked. Within two days I had milk. It took 12 days, and some pharmacological help, but finally I was able to feed Jonas the way I had intended to – with breastmilk. Except now we had another problem.
Oh Joy, Nipple Confusion
Drinking (pumped milk and/or formula) out of a bottle was super easy for Jonas. Eating from me, not as easy. It required more work. To say Jonas was a tad lazy as a newborn is a bit of an understatement. It was as if eating was exhausting to him. He’d just snooze at the boob. And if he was alert and awake he was frustrated because the milk wasn’t as easy to get to. He was lazy on the right side and frustrated on the left due to a slightly flat nipple. (Is there such a thing as TMI at this point?)
The lactation consultant suggested trying a nipple shield to ease Jonas back to the breast. It worked. He was able to eat contentedly and easily. I wasn’t thrilled about him being ‘dependent’ on a nipple shield but it was better than where we had come from. I had read about some babies who relied on a nipple shield for months and that was not what I wanted to deal with. I was bracing myself for a rough while of weaning him off the shield.
Finally Jonas Figures It Out
One day out of the blue Jonas started getting super fussy with the nipple shield. So I took it off to reposition it and he immediately latched on beautifully without it, on both sides. Here I was dreading the fight to get rid of the shield and Jonas decided on his own, way sooner than I expected that he wasn’t having it anymore.
It was around this time that we were able to cut out formula completely. We were still feeding a bit of pumped milk each night before bed.
I strongly believe that as Jonas grew and got stronger that he was able to eat better. His sucking reflex became stronger and stronger. The stronger he could suck, the more milk I began producing. It was perfect.
At 10 weeks old, when I first started writing this blog post, Jonas was gaining steadily and eating regularly. Jonas is healthy and exclusively breastfed. We don’t use a bottle at all anymore. I used to pump every night to add to the freezer stash for emergencies. I also used to keep pumping because I was afraid that if I stopped it would affect my supply. Eventually I was able to cut those pumping sessions out and only pump when I want to or need to build up more stash in the freezer.
Here’s What I Have Learned So Far
Breastfeeding, while a totally natural thing, does not always come naturally.
Almost every single mother I spoke with didn’t have it easy when they first started breastfeeding.
If you have to supplement with formula, you’re not a horrible mother.
If you have to use a nipple shield, it’s okay – you’re just taking the extra help.
Taking medication, with your doctor’s advice, to help bring in your milk does not make you unnatural.
No matter what you’re dealing with, you are not broken and you have not failed.
Even now, after things finally seem like they’re going well, I still have moments of panic that I have stopped producing enough milk for some reason. If Jonas gets fussy at the breast I instantly worry that it’s because I don’t have enough to feed him. I have to calm myself down and I remind myself that my body is amazing and to trust that I have enough of what he needs.